I disagree with nearly all of the Obama Administration’s policy and practice regarding public schools, but the role the Obama Administration had in this should be celebrated:
Faced with mounting evidence that get-tough policies in schools are leading to arrest records, low academic achievement and high dropout rates that especially affect minority students, cities and school districts around the country are rethinking their approach to minor offenses.
In the past two decades, schools around the country have seen suspensions, expulsions and arrests for minor nonviolent offenses climb together with the number of police officers stationed at schools. The policy, called zero tolerance, first grew out of the war on drugs in the 1990s and became more aggressive in the wake of school shootings like the one at Columbine High School in Colorado.
When I talk to adults about what’s going on in schools I have noticed that because the vast majority of people once attended a public school, adults who don’t follow this closely for one reason or another tend to compare any current policy with their own experience. That’s probably natural and it’s understandable and all, but it may not be sufficient, because many of the policies and practices I object to are somewhat like what adults may have experienced in 1970 or 1980 or 1990, but they are different, worse, because of degree. So, for example, if I say I object to the nutty proliferation and single-minded focus on standardized testing, today, right now, I’m not talking about when you aced the Iowa Test of Basic Skills in 1987. I’m talking about an obsessive focus on standardized testing. I’m talking about out-of-control testing obsession like this.
Similarly, “zero tolerance” is not ordinary discipline and it’s not removing disruptive students from a single class session or keeping them after school or calling their parents. Zero tolerance is extreme, unsurprisingly perhaps, given that it’s called ZERO tolerance.
It’s turning kids over to law enforcement or the courts for relatively minor infractions. It’s taking them out of school and putting them into the juvenile justice system when they shouldn’t be there, and once they’re in that system they start to believe they belong there and once the big court machine starts rolling it’s hard to get them OUT of it and back to school even if we in the system know they don’t belong in a court.
Beginning in 2009, the Department of Justice and the Department of Education aggressively began to encourage schools to think twice before arresting and pushing children out of school. In some cases, as in Meridian, Miss., the federal government has sued to force change in schools.
In the most extreme cases, this is what “zero tolerance” looks like. This is from the Meridian, Mississippi DOJ complaint (pdf):
Defendants’ concerted actions punish children in Meridian, Mississippi so arbitrarily and severely as to shock the conscience, and deprive these children of liberty and educational opportunities on an ongoing basis.
The repercussions of the constitutional violations perpetrated by Defendants are
severe and far-reaching. Children are regularly and repeatedly handcuffed and arrested in school and incarcerated for days at a time without a probable cause hearing, regardless of the severity-or lack thereof-of the alleged offense or probation violation.
Research suggests that arrest, detention, and juvenile court appearances have profound negative short-term and long-term consequences for children’s mental and physical health, educational success, and future employment opportunities. One study of national data suggests that arrest doubles the probability of dropout. Even one court appearance during high school increases a child’s likelihood of dropping out of school, and court appearances are especially detrimental to children with no or minimal previous history of delinquency. Detention disrupts children’s engagement with families, school, and work, and may slow or interrupt the natural process of “aging out” of delinquency. Moreover, children detained pending adjudication are more likely to be committed to a juvenile facility than children who are not detained, regardless of the charges against them. Research links incarceration of juveniles to significantly higher school dropout rates, which translate to higher unemployment, poorer health, shorter lifespan, lower earnings, and increased future contacts with the criminal justice system.
The “probation violation” process explained in the complaint is crucial to understanding this, because that’s how kids who never belonged there in the first place remain in the juvenile justice system once they enter it. When kids are charged and adjudicated within the court system for relatively minor incidents at school the terms of their probation or ongoing court supervision often include a provision where any future incident at school is not just breaking a school rule but also a probation violation, which then lands them right back in court. This can go on for months and sometimes years.